For a product to sell, not only does its marketing have to be flawless, but the product itself must be pretty bloody good. At the commencement of the 2016/2017 Hyundai A-League season, the FFA, Australia’s leading football organisation, announced that they would be rebranding to enhance their expansion both nationally and internationally. This rebrand came in the shape of a new logo, website and general re-structure of the A-League identity. In conjunction with its partner Fox Sports, the A-League clearly laid out its intention to make football Australia’s number one code of sport. Hulsbosch, the Sydney-based graphic design agency was given the responsibility of the creative part of the project. They placed “atmosphere, diversity and unity” at the forefront of the rebrand, attempting to “create a stronger footprint in Australia”. In general, the work has been successful. But is that enough?
Some ground made
Over the past 20 years, football has undoubtedly risen to challenge other, more deeply embedded sports codes in Australia. For decades AFL, cricket and the rugby codes have ruled the roost and reaped the rewards. On the surface, the A-League, which works as the driving force for domestic football, is the game’s figurehead (its Premier League if you like) and the peak of Australian football. Yet despite the bright, shiny marketing campaigns, there are some fundamental and inherent flaws in the foundations and framework of Australian football. These issues tell a different story to the one about sold-out stadiums (even though they don’t), flash kit sponsors and imports. These problems are the root cause of why young Australian players are choosing to go abroad to learn their trade and only by confronting and correcting them will the beautiful game have a chance at survival in this footballing outpost. In short – football at the grass roots level in Australia is broken. From poor coaching standards and astronomically high fees, to the topping up of squads with inadequate players of the ‘right heritage’ – the A-League doesn’t stand a chance! Despite the undeniable love shown to the A-League from those fans without the prior knowledge of the sports dysfunctional state leagues, there is a deep venom that runs from within that sees young, home-grown players turn away from the sport at a state level. They are then left to look disappointedly at the final product thinking “It could be so much better.”
Not an “unlimited” experience
The A-League markets their game and ultimately the fan experience as “unlimited”, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, the A-League and Australian football is extremely limited. It can only offer the consumer a one-dimensional, low standard of football. But A-League clubs can only work with the raw materials they are given and the wage cap restricts access to even more foreign imports. More failed Brazilians replacing driven but technically floored youngsters is a sorry by-product of a broken system. Ambitious Aussie kids ranging from under 12s to reserve grades are often benched and even released with the arrival of “foreign talent” or to put it more accurately “former Dutch Division 4 players”. 7th generation synthetic pitches, the ultra-bright flood-lights using the same amount of electricity as the entire Alice Springs City Council, and the imports with only their first name on the back of their shirts is not enough to put Australian football on the map. And as for finding the next Tim Cahill?! You can call off the search for a while.
Behind its glimmering new logo and chic commercials, the A-League teams’ inability to compete in the Asian Champions League epitomizes everything that’s wrong with the game in this country. Stripped down to its simplest form, 11 v 11, Aussie football cannot compete at an international level – and even the team at Mad Men could not convince the savvy football-watcher otherwise. The grass roots are not being tended and in fact have grown so out of control there is a very real danger that they will strangle the sport on a domestic level – before its even had a chance to get going.
Money in transfer markets
Football clubs across the globe make money in the transfer market. Those that play the game well, do very well from it. Chelsea have almost turned it into an art-form with a huge roster of playing staff being constantly rotated, loaned out and traded. And many of those being marketed are home grown talents. Top flight clubs rely on the process to keep competitive. Those in the level below rely upon the income to survive. Why then, is there no transfer fee when Australian A-League clubs wish to buy players from the national feeder leagues? Unlike NRL or the AFL, there seems to be no real competitive market here for the transfer of players between teams. An undeniable opportunity exists for National Premier League (state) sides to make money by developing homegrown players and then selling them to the A-League clubs. This would have triple benefits. The state league teams would be more inclined to take coaching more seriously if there was a financial windfall at the end of it. They would also be less inclined to carry on the tradition of including less talented players with a Greek/Macedonian/Italian/Jewish/Croat/Serb background to keep the club officials happy. This would result in more natural talent getting the platform it deserves. And that, would lead to less potential going to waste before it has had time to blossom.
Answer at the grass-roots
Every time the Socceroos scrape a draw with a footballing powerhouse like Oman the same old pleas about a lack of talent in Australia can be heard. The A-League seems to take a large degree of the blame. ‘Not good enough…’, ‘…. too slow….’, ‘technically deficient….’ is about the strength of it. All true. But can we lay all the blame at the A-league’s door? They aren’t insisting that parents pay $2,500 for their kid to play in the state league. They aren’t employing unqualified mates as coaches. And they aren’t trying to charge $20 for a parent to watch his son play in an under 20 game. The problems start much earlier than at A-League level. In truth, the A-League can only work with the materials they are given. Finished but technically flawed materials. And they cannot be held responsible for the development of the coming generations of Australian football talent. The Premier League works because, despite headlines to the contrary – British talent can still rise to the top. It’s hard for sure, but if you’re good enough, take your chances and have a fair old sprinkling of luck – you could make it. The young British players nibbling around the edges of it have one distinct advantage over the young Aussie’s trying to make it here – the grass roots of the game in the UK is well run, affordable for parents and filled with quality coaches. Finding the next Rooney is a damn site easier than spotting a future Mark Viduka.
The slick marketing of the A-League is on par with that of the English Premier League. Its glossy logo, high quality production, designer-suited presenters and sexy videos depict a thriving league in a football obsessed country. The reality is a lot different. Underneath the thin veneer of gloss is an organisation struggling to fill stadiums (some of that is geographical and at this stage in the league’s growth must be taken on the chin) and a lack of Australian talent. “The unique identity is primarily a reflection of the passionate football fan. It delivers a clarified visual language that is energetic and positive for a stronger football footprint in Australia,” says Jaid Hulsbosch, creative director at Hulsbosch. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But is the fan really going to feel that? These are the same fans who have been brought up watching the Premier League on TV. They are not stupid. They know this league is pedestrian by comparison. They get it. And until the FFA take a microscope to the grass roots of the game here – they’ll continue to be amongst the very few who do.